Abstract: The Unbroken Lineage of the Sinhalese Bhikkhuni Sangha from 3rd century B.C. to the 11th century

by Dr. Hema Goonatilake

The Dipavamsa description of the attainment of Sotapatti by princess Anula and her attendants on listening to the first sermon by the Thera Mahinda in 250 B.C., as first such occurrence in Sri Lanka signals the impending introduction of the Bhikkhuni Sangha, even before the introduction of the Bhikkhu Sangha. The Bhikkhuni Sangha introduced by Emperor Asoka’s daughter, Theri Sanghamitta, just six months after the introduction of the Bhikkhu Sangha flourished in Sri Lanka and became defunct only after the fall of the capital, Anuradhapura to the Chola invaders from South India in 1017 A.D. There is evidence that as in the Buddha’s time, thousands of Bhikkhunis lived in independent nunneries in Sri Lanka with separate administrative organizations up to 1017 A.D.

The Dipavamsa gives detailed information on the continuation of the lineage introduced by Sanghamitta, not only in the capital of Anuradhapura, but also of its spread to other parts of the country. Bhikkhunis who had excelled in different parts of the canon with the study of Vinaya given the highest place, as well as those who had attained special skills during different periods of time are described in detail.  

There is evidence to prove that the Bhikkhuni lineage that was inherited from Sanghamitta continued in Sri Lanka through the centuries. There is also evidence for the existence of an unbroken succession of teachers of the Vinaya among the Bhikkhunis coming down from the time of Saghamitta. The original interpretation of the Vinaya for Bhikkhunis is retained in the Cullavagga in the Vinaya Pitaka, the earliest section of the Buddhist canon. There is also evidence to show that the succession of teachers among Bhikkhunis had no links with the line of teachers among monks as given in the Samantapasadika, a commentary on the Vinaya Pitaka written in Sri Lanka in the 5th century by Buddhaghosa, a monk from South India. The line of teachers and the interpretation of the Vinaya as contained in the Samantapasadika is a modified code of conduct for monks, developed by the commentators.

It was this unbroken lineage that was passed on by the Sri Lankan Bhikkhunis headed by Devasara when they conferred higher ordination to more than 300 Chinese nuns in Nanjing in 433 A.C. who had by then, received ordination only from monks.